As Erdoğan’s grip loosens, an embattled Turkey enters a most delicate phase

If people hold their breath about Turkey these days, they are right. As the world shows strong signs of disarray, certainly the country has placed itself at its epicenter.

It has become such a fast ‘moving target’ that – ask any journalist – it is very tough to analyse its current state and next moves.

At first sight it looks as if it is now speeding up towards a full-scale authoritarianist rule. It is true. President Erdoğan has so far not blinked about the goal he has fixed his eyes upon, and consequently engaged all his political arsenal to force through an enmpowered presidential system by extreme series of moves to drag along his ally in Parliament – ultra-nationalist party, MHP.

And he has, as the waves of mass arrests indisriminately sweeps through the flanks of opposition and the vast institutional purge within the state apparatus has shown, the most efficient tool in his hand.

Declared days after the coup attempt in July, the emergency rule is once more extended, and will be at his service until late April.

There seems to be no weakening of the oppressive measures, accompanied by a fiercely nationalistic rhetoric, generously peppered by religious references.


But, once you look at the broader picture, things look different. With the economy in steep downslope, active warfare in northern Syrian territory that causes many causalties, the terror now displaying signs of routine in urban areas, Turkey seems rudderless, and a strong power image Erdoğan tries to impose is no more than an illusion.

Polarisation is fed on daily basis by the harsh political discourse, punitive measures suffocating freedoms and the acts of terror itself, and there is no hiding the fact that people have reached a stress level they have never experienced before.

Anger, depression and despair spread like epidemic.

‘After nearly two years of deadly incidents and alarming political instability, Turks were once again left counting the dead – and wondering how much more their country can take’ wrote Prof Alparslan Özerdem and Dr Bahar Başer, both from Coventry University, in a recent analysis.

They are seeking a response to currently most interesting question:

Has Erdoğan lost his grip on Turkey?

It could also be posed as ‘ Has Erdoğan lost his grip on power? – an equally legitimate, if not more to the point, question.

Here is how the authors see it, in some excerpts:

…the latest attack comes only six months after a bizarre failed coup, undoubtedly one of the most significant events in Turkey’s modern history. The coup’s planners had little public support, and opposition leaders have also constantly underlined that it would have been a tragedy if it had succeeded.

So, the aftermath was a huge opportunity for Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president, and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to correct the country’s disturbing course: to restore trust between various ethnic and religious communities, to start a new peace process with the Kurds after the last one failed in 2015, and to bring greater democracy to the country.

But instead of trying to put Turkey back on the right track, the AKP government has done quite the opposite.

The post-putsch period has brought chaos and enmity as well as a total crackdown on groups and individuals, including academics, journalists, teachers, lawyers and judges. Some of them were supposedly linked to the followers of exiled religious leader Fethullah Gülen, while others support different opposition groups.

This sort of authoritarianism has been brewing in Turkey for some time, especially since the elections of June 2015 failed to hand the AKP a ruling parliamentary majority.

There followed an increased level of political violence and terrorism for a period of four months, enough to convince Turkish voters that without an AKP majority, there would be no end to the bloodshed the country was witnessing. After campaigning on that basis for a re-run of the June elections, Erdoğan won the majority he so badly wanted – but the result did nothing for peace and security.

The coup attempt was the next critical turning point. Erdoğan himself called it “a gift from God” that enabled the rulers of “New Turkey” to shore up their power with ever harsher policies. Only five days after the attempted coup, the AKP government declared a state of emergency; it was originally scheduled to last three months, but was then extended until mid-April 2017. It has become a useful tool for the government, which is still using the failed putsch as an pretext to crack down on opposition.

 Rather than downplaying the divisions among different ethnic and religious groups in Turkey in the post-putsch period, the ruling party and the president are deepening the country’s many divisions, all the while assisted by the mainstream media.

They are creating a fractured political environment which will enable them to promote constitutional amendments, in the long run presenting Erdoğan’s long-held dream of an executive presidential system as the only thing that can bring Turkey back from the brink.

 But, according to the authors, this strategy may backfire, ‘despite the strictures of the state of emergency’, and line up some fronts increasing its pressure on Erdoğan:

  • IS recently released a video in December purporting to show two Turkish soldiers being burned alive in Syria; the authorities could not give a satisfactory answer on whether the claim was actually true.
  • Then the Russian ambassador was assassinated by a Turkish policeman in the capital city, sending a message that no-one in Turkey is really safe.
  • The continuing insecurity is already devouring the tourism sector, tanking the Lira, and undercutting the economy in general (with exports in particular on the wane).

Here is their conclusion:

All this will make it increasingly hard for the AKP to consolidate its voter base. The government seems incapable of safeguarding the basic conditions of security and stability, and if IS and other groups mount further attacks like the one on New Year’s Eve, indecisive voters might actually start to move towards other political parties.

The very insecurity that helped Erdoğan strengthen his power base could yet be his downfall.

In its editorial, the Guardian adds another element which casts a darkening shadow over Erdoğan’s ambitions, while praising the resiliency of Turkish people.

Turkey’s paranoid, autocratic president and his administration hardly warrant sympathy. More than 140 writers, journalists and intellectuals are imprisoned. Social media users are increasingly being investigated. Legal proceedings have begun against 80,000 people nationwide, in what amounts to massive purges… Turkey’s relations with western allies have been strained as a result of the president’s human rights record as well as policy divergences in the Middle East.

It is easy, when looking at a country in the grip of authoritarianism, to see just the despot and not the millions of citizens who populate the land in all their diversity and with all their aspirations. One man captures all the attention because he is deemed to control so much – and, indeed, his power is unrelenting. But as a nation mourns its dead, one way to manifest solidarity is to remember that despite the pressures there remains a vivid civil society in Turkey, aspiring to democracy, openness and tolerance, not hatred and divisiveness, and it is showing much courage…’

Two slightly differing views, although there is an overall agreement that the newer heights the oppression reaches, targeting defenseless citizenry, whose expectations largely on safety of life and better governance, the more delicate the phase Turkey under Erdoğan enters.

Not much more to add to these fine points, than one that is missed here, and it is looming behind the scenery as a factor which can define the course of drama into tragedy:

Pressing the gas pedal full after feeling emboldened by the coup attempt, Erdoğan went headlong into launching a purge within the military, police and the judiciary; while annihilating the independent media.


To be able to do this efficiently under the emergency rule, he cemented the alliance with the old elements of the State – the hard-liner circles, ‘dirty warriors’, off-shoots of extreme-right Grey Wolves and Salafist local organisations, as well as anti-western ultra nationalists, such as Worker’s Party (IP) – and initiated a cooperation.

This has been working on various levels: these core groups nested now as replacements within the state target indiscriminately all opposition flanks, whose only common denominator has been to demand democratisation, freedom and rights. The second level works as to distance Turkey from the key western institutions, such as NATO, EU and even European Court of Human Rights.

The question still is whether or not it is truly Erdoğan and his AKP is ruling the country, or franchising certain parts of power means that Erdoğan’s grip is rapidly loosening.

Guardian’s editorial ended:

‘A shaken nation lives in the fear that more violence may befall it in 2017, as it grapples with internal strife and the fallout from war and chaos in the Middle East. The trauma of terrorism exists alongside that of large-scale political repression in the aftermath of July’s coup attempt, as well as tensions created by coping (often remarkably, at a human level) with the arrival of an estimated 3 million refugees in recent years.

These forces are of course of different natures and dimensions; they should not be conflated with one another, nor automatically connected. But to grasp the immense pressure Turkish citizens are under, it is important to keep them all in mind.

In any country, any one of these would be a massive challenge; taken together, they amount to a rare test, putting a highly polarised nation at an important, possibly decisive, crossroads.’

Turkey has turned into battlefield for ruthless power grab, and it has now entered a most delicate phase of its existence.

Decisive crossroads indeed.


About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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